Spokane Journal of Business

Parting Thoughts with Panhandle Health District’s Lora Whalen


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-Virginia Thomas

Lora Whalen is leaving Panhandle Health District after serving as   its director for a decade.

Whalen, age 61, was born and raised in Iowa, where she attended the University of Iowa for dual bachelor’s degrees, one in nursing and the other in Spanish.

An Army veteran, Whalen spent most of a decade serving in Europe before she met her American-born husband and they relocated to the Inland Northwest. Whalen spent nearly a decade commuting from her home in North Idaho to her job at the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center, in North Spokane.

In 2001, Whalen was hired at Panhandle Health District as a division administrator. She earned her master’s degree in education from the University of Idaho while working full time at PHD. In 2010, she was hired as the health district’s director.

The Journal sat down with Whalen—unmasked and fully vaccinated—to discuss her career.

What drew you to health care?

I saw an ad in the paper one day that said, ‘Be all you can be and we’ll pay for it. All you have to do is become a nurse.’ I’d never really thought about nursing, but hand-in-hand with the Army, I thought that would be a great combo. And it was. The Army teaches you a lot about leadership and nursing. The two combined were really good for me.

What are some lessons that you took from the Army and your nursing experiences and applied to your administrative roles?

It’s about leadership. It’s how you get people to follow you and want to work with you rather than against you. 

In the military, it’s a little different. In the Army, you would tell somebody to start an IV, and they’d just say yes ma’am and go do it. In the civilian world, you learn very quickly, you don’t ever tell someone to do something like you perhaps would do in the military, that you ask them. 

Sometimes, people who have been in the military for a long time take a while to convert over to civilian ways. The military teaches anybody who enters that there’s a way to do things. There are processes to follow, and it teaches a lot of leadership skill, which is why I’m here. There are some great nurse leaders out there, but it’s a talent you’ve got to work on.

How have you seen things change as far as women in leadership in health care? 

I’ve been in a limited number of organizations. In the military, especially in nursing, there are women in leadership, and at the top levels as well. More and more women are going into leadership, as they should. But I think the key to that is that they have to realize that they can, and figure out how to get there. What are the steps that I need to take? Who do I need to know? What type of education do I need? What kind of jobs do I need to have that are going to lead me to where I want to be? I saw quickly here when I was the division administrator that I wanted to be the director. I took some steps and was selected to fill this role.

What are the greatest challenges that you’ve faced in the role of director at Panhandle Health during this pandemic?

Getting the accurate and timely information and data out to the public in many different ways is a challenge. There’s so much misinformation out there.

It’s challenging trying to share with the public information from trusted sources, and to explain to the public that there are a lot of sites out there and a lot of information out there, and they need to be discerning and understand what the source data is.

There are a lot of folks who were very anti-mask and were quite upset when the health district issued an order for masking. There was quite a bit of pushback from folks who voiced their unhappiness with that order in ways that weren’t very civil or kind. 

Our staff took a lot of angry calls and emails from people who weren’t willing to hear the other side. I’m proud of the staff who always stayed kind and respectful when other folks weren’t being kind and respectful to them. I worked to always be kind and respectful. Generally speaking, when you’re face-to-face with someone, they too are kind and respectful. 

You have to be able to have one-on-one conversations with folks who may have to agree to disagree. In many cases, that’s what happened. In other cases, people would rather leave an email or voicemail and not speak one-on-one. It’s my job to take some of those calls when they come to that level, and I’m happy to do so. In many cases, in the end, you’re just going to have to agree to disagree.

What are some of the most important lessons that the pandemic has taught the Panhandle community, as far as public health?

Public health was at the forefront, leading the charge in many ways and working in partnership. The key is working in partnership with our community. The whole reason for the social distancing and the masking and all the recommendations that were made is to preserve the capacity of the hospital to care for those who were truly ill with COVID and needed the additional oxygen and support that a hospital can give. It’s working in partnership. 

This has proven that we can come together as a community and get messages out on prevention to keep people out of the hospital, as well as to preserve the capacity of that hospital for those who truly need the expertise that the hospital affords.

As you prepare to leave, what’s one of the more pressing challenges that the organization is facing?

The continuity of operations. The board has chosen a great interim director. They’re going to do a national search, and I’m sure they’ll find the best possible candidate for the job. My dream is that the new person will come in and do great things. 

For the organization, it’s finding someone who’s a really good fit here, who knows the community or is willing to know the community and be a part of that community. Public health can’t do this lift on our own. We need the collaboration of all of our partners. When you’re leading an organization, you’re looking at all aspects. You’re looking at the personnel aspect. Certainly, your eye is always on the financial ball.

What’s next for you?

I am going to have a North Idaho summer. I’ve been working since I was in ninth grade — not necessarily full time, but pretty much once I got through high school and was in college, I was working when I wasn’t in school. I’m going to not work and see how that goes. We love to hike. I’m sure eventually I’ll get involved in some community things or some boards. But for a while, I’m just going to enjoy the summer. I love to exercise, so I’ll continue to exercise, but it won’t necessarily mean waking up at five in the morning to do that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Virginia Thomas
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Reporter Virginia Thomas has worked at the Journal since 2017 and covers the health care industry. As a reporter, she loves learning about Spokane's many growing industries. She enjoys travelling with her husband, snuggling with her cats, and cross stitching.

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